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Here’s What Happened When Google Did a Search for the Best Managers

The results of Google’s Project Oxygen breathes new life into the role of managers.

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The wildly popular comic strip “Dilbert” by Scott Adams is an amusing and mostly accurate depiction of the world of business. In one such strip, employees meet with their pointy-headed boss, who gets confused while trying to say he wants to empower his employees. Clearly, he’s not even sure what he means by it, especially since he’s never asked for their input. Out of the confusion, an employee asks if they can go back to their old way of doing things, where the employees were afraid to make decisions and the manager was never available?

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In that old way madness lies.

Yes, the panel, as many “Dilbert” panels do, points out how some managers are incredibly, comically incompetent. But it may not be the manager’s fault entirely. A study by Gallup concluded companies fail to choose the right personnel for a management position 82% of the time.

It is no surprise, then, that the brilliant engineering minds behind Google, distrustful of bureaucracy, thought they didn’t need managers at all. In 2002, Google tried a flat structure known as a holacracy. This is a system that focuses less on traditional management roles and more on autonomy, with authority and decision-making relegated to self-organizing teams.

After only a few months, Google realized a flat structure didn’t work for the company. Like the characters in “Dilbert,” employees couldn’t make decisions or find the answers they needed, and the manager was never available because the role no longer existed. With no one in charge to set priorities, conflicts escalated while morale dropped.

If Google was going to need managers, the company concluded, they wanted to make sure they had the best. Enter Project Oxygen, a group of statisticians brought together by Google to gather and analyze data culled from performance reviews, manager awards and employee input. More than 10,000 observations, in total, were tracked in an effort to understand why some managers succeed where others fail.

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The results surprised many at the top of the organization.

It turned out, managers, rather than holding an unnecessary or questionable position on an org chart, had a great impact on job performance at Google. As an engineering-driven company, they had assumed a manager’s mastery of technology was the one indisputable trait all successful Google managers shared. Although it’s an important skill set, to be sure, the data told them it was a far less important attribute than soft-skills, such as listening and communicating.

In order of importance, here are the eight essential attributes of a successful manager, based on the recommendations of Project Oxygen:

  1. Be a good coach;
  2. Empower their team, rather than micromanage;
  3. Express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being;
  4. Be productive and results-oriented;
  5. Be a good communicator (i.e. listen and share information);
  6. Help with career development;
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for their team;
  8. Possess the key technical skills that help them advise the team.

To those with tenure in H.R. departments, the findings and recommendations of Project Oxygen confirm what they’ve known for a long time: managers matter. That’s why it’s important to hire — and train — the best.

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For more details about Project Oxygen, read this New York Times story and the Harvard Business Review case study on the project.

Toby Graham

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